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Temple Treasures, Claimant Pressures: Heritage and the Commons

The ongoing hullabaloo over the discovery of an unimaginably huge cache of treasure - in the form of precious stones, gold and silver jewellery, supposedly worth tens of thousands of crores of rupees - in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram throws up questions of cultural heritage and archaeological conservation for the common good of the people.


Temple Treasures, Claimant Pressures: Heritage and the Commons

K G Kumar

Even as the Supreme Court has ordered video recording of the stocktaking of the inventory of artefacts discovered in the secret underground chambers of the temple, the debate now is about the ownership and right to possession of the treasure trove, and who can – and cannot – profit from its custodianship.

For centuries the maharajahs of Travan-

The ongoing hullabaloo over the discovery of an unimaginably huge cache of treasure – in the form of precious stones, gold and silver jewellery, supposedly worth tens of thousands of crores of rupees – in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram throws up questions of cultural heritage and archaeological conservation for the common good of the people.

K G Kumar ( is an independent journalist and editor based in Thiruvananthapuram.

either Steven Spielberg nor George Lucas could have hoped that their combined creative juices would be able to conjure up such a phantasmagoria that would put Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom into a pale shadow of real life. What has been unfolding over the past few weeks within the surrounds of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, a Mahavishnu temple located in the historic East Fort area of Thiru vananthapuram, the capital of Keral a and power centre of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, defies imagination and is becoming more and more the stuff of crazed scriptwriters and writers of dazzling fantasy.

And dazzling it certainly was – almost literally, as the Supreme Court-appointed officials found out when they opened the antediluvian vaults of the temple, and their eyes adjusted to the dank, airless environs to focus, in astonishment, at the burnished array of gold, silver and age-encrusted gems that had been interred there for centuries by the Travancore maharajahs.

Value of the Cache

There is yet no official, authoritative estimate of the total value of the precious artefacts unearthed from five of the six sealed vaults of the temple, last opened in 1931. But no one – certainly not a frenzied media glad for a respite from the tiresome normal beat of politics and governance – is willing to settle for anything below a staggering Rs 1,00,000 crore (around $23 billion) as the minimum worth of the wealth of the treasure. These, reportedly, range from a foot-long golden idol of Mahavishnu, coconut shells fashioned out of pure gold and studded with precious stones like rubies and emeralds, and a 30 kg golden, emerald-studded bracelet to rare 16th century coins.

july 16, 2011

core – starting with Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma who reigned between 1729 and 1758 and annexed several neighbouring territories to expand his kingdom from Nagercoil, near Kanyakumari in the south, in today’s Tamil Nadu, to the backwaters of Cochin in the north, and is widely revered as the founder of modern Travancore – ruled the region as servants and supplicants of Padmanabha, who was declared the titular deity of the royal family in 1750.

Some historians believe that the temple dates to the 3rd century and there are refe rences to it in the writings of 8th c entury Tamil poets. But it was in 1733 that Marthanda Varma oversaw the reconstruction of the sanctum sanctorum and the refurbishment of the idol of the reclining Sree Padmanabha, seen as symbolic of the god Vishnu in eternal sleep. Since then, successive rulers of Travancore have tended to the temple’s upkeep through a trust run by the descendants of the royal family. The royal family’s veneration of the temple and their idolatry of its ruling deity have long been publicly displayed in the form of resplendent annual processions and ceremonial rituals and festivals, widely attended by the citizenry of modern Thiruvananthapuram in a piquant flashback to an epoch of benevolent ruler-subject relations.

All this was torn asunder by a petition by a local lawyer, T P Sundar Rajan, who filed a case in the Kerala High Court demanding the takeover of the temple, citing inept security in protecting the immense wealth contained in the temple. On 31 January the Kerala High Court ordered the state government to take over the assets and management of the temple. But, based on a special leave petition by the legal heirs of the erstwhile maharajah of Travancore, the Supreme Court stayed the high court’s ruling, ordered enhanced

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security for the temple and appointed a seven -member panel to enter the temple’s sealed vaults and assess the value of the precious objects stored in them.

And therein lies the rub. Like bears sensing the sweet odour of honey, all sorts of interests – from temple authorities and religious figureheads to social activists, academics and political groups – began swooping down to snatch a share of the spoils, or at least an assurance that all that wealth would not get concentrated, even if only in nominal form, in the hands of a single entity.

Many Hindu religious groupings, some known for their past fundamentalist leanings, wish that the staggering wealth unearthed from the temple should be used to advance oriental cultural (read: Hindu religious) studies. Kanchi Sankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi, the head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, said that the treasure is the “exclusive property” of the Travancore royal family.

Perspectives on Use

Historians differ on how best the temple’s gold treasure ought to be deployed. Some, like M G S Narayanan, former chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, feel that only the temple trust authorities, including the former maharajah of Travancore, can decide how to spend or apportion the phenomenal assets brought to light since there is documentary evidence to establish traditional ownership. Other historians, like P J Cherian, director of the Kerala Council for Histo rical Research, say that even though the antiquities and artefacts can be argued to belong to the erstwhile royal family of Travancore, the provisions of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, can be invoked to regulate and control the movement of these artefacts so as to prevent looting and smuggling, and other acts of fraud like illegal trading, destruction and vandalism.

Historian Rajan Gurukkal, vice chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, feels that as archaeological finds, these treasures ought to rightfully go to the Archaeological Survey of India as historical relics to be preserved for posterity in the public interest of the nation.

This is the similar persuasion behind calls for the temple’s newfound assets to be employed in the service of either some existing museum or a new one created afresh for this purpose.

Interestingly enough, the ex-royals themselves appear magnanimous in their attitude towards the find. K K Venugopal, the lawyer representing the descendants of the Travancore royal family in the Supreme Court, told the court that the head of the Travancore family, Marthanda Varma, believed the stunning manna from heaven should be used judiciously for religious and social purposes such as building hospitals and schools, and the treasure of artefacts ought to be kept in a museum independent of the temple. This appears to be an apparent relinquishment of rights enshrined in legislation after independence in 1947 when Travancore merged with Cochin to eventually form the contemporary modern state of Kerala.

The sentiment thus expressed by the present-day representatives of the Travancore royal family in the Supreme Court is in keeping with the tradition of the family, which has long upheld and promoted culture, education and healthcare for the benefit of the citizenry of Kerala – especially among women – decades before the state came to acquire its status as a star in the area of human development despite low per capita income and sluggish industrialisation.

The idea of some sort of repository as testimony to a cultural tradition of ideas, beliefs and artistic craftmanship thus seems eminently suited to the lineament of the Travancore royal family. A museum, according to the Netherlands Museums Association, is “a permanent institution in service of the community and her development, accessible by the public, with a not-forprofit purpose, that collects, preserves, researches, presents and informs on the material expressions of mankind and his environment for purposes of study, education and pleasure.” As a representation and reflection of Kerala’s (and, more specifically, Thiruvananthapuram’s) cultural, social, economic, religious, political, architectural and aesthetic heritage, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is a prime candidate for this position. Such an embellishment could also be tapped for cultural tourism promotion programmes that could help protect and enhance the natural and cultural heritage characteristics of the temple.

However, in pursuit of the protection of cultural, architectural and archaeological heritage, it is necessary to guard against the ever-present dangers of communal bigotry and religious dogmatism. Only an agenda of public inclusivity and transparent community participation, which necessarily recognises sociocultural and religious sensibilities as well as cultural diversity without giving in to fundamentalist passions, can hope to trasform the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple into a larger representation of the power of the creative “commons” in culture and heritage.

Creative Commons

“In service of the community...Accessible by the public...A non-for-profit purpose... For purposes of study, education and pleasure.” These are the very tenets that echo the principles expressed by Creative Commons, a United States-based non-profit organisation that develops, supports and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximises digital creativity, sharing and innovation, in the tradition of Free/ Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS):

The world has experienced an explosion of openness. From individual artists opening their creations for input from others, to governments requiring publicly funded works be available to the public, both the spirit and practice of sharing is gaining momentum and producing results.

Mountain View, California, home to both Creative Commons and the Computer History Museum, is thousands of kilometres away from the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. But computers and temples share a common world, a common dream. The ongoing furore over the discovery of untold riches in an ancient temple only points to the need for a fine balance between private incentives and the public domain, and between the rights of consumers of culture and other socio-economic interests.

available at

K C Enterprises

3-6-136/6, Street No 17 Himayathnagar, Hyderabad 500 029 Andhra Pradesh Ph: 66465549

Economic & Political Weekly

july 16, 2011 vol xlvi no 29

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